Cultivating Employee Intrinsic Motivation to Empower Potential

Organizational leaders can help high performing employees express their intrinsic motivation. This in turn benefits the organization, as leadership capabilities are developed. It requires leaders with high level coaching skills and a willingness to extend effort to understand each employee’s psychological needs.

All employees should feel empowered, but when talking about the next generations of leaders, empowerment takes on new meaning. For many reasons, Millennials and Gen Z face more challenges and opportunities than seen in decades, and they need the skills to lead in an uncertain future. They are (and/or will become) leaders who must manage through the challenges of globalization, technology, economic turmoil, and social turmoil, to name just a few of the factors disrupting the business environment.

Many employees have undeveloped or underdeveloped (or both) leadership abilities, so most organizations face the challenge of unlocking employee potential. A frequently overlooked approach is to help employees express their intrinsic motivation. This can unleash their hidden leadership potential and put them on the right path to climb the performance ladder. However, it requires leadership coaching, which is a very different type of leadership style compared to the traditional command-and-control.

Intrinsic motivation refers to engaging in activities for the satisfaction they bring to the individual. Consider how most organizations try to motivate employees. They give perks or rewards for good performance,which reminds one of the metaphorical “carrot” intended to drive behavior. The problem with relying on this approach alone is that it promotes behavior within defined limits, and this often encourages employees to stay within their comfort zone. This does nothing to enhance intrinsic motivation,where employees learn and behave in a certain way because it brings them great personal satisfaction and not because the behavior is formally rewarded.

Intrinsic motivation was defined by Ryan and Deci as the “doing of an activity for its inherent satisfactions rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external prods, pressures, or rewards.”1In a nutshell, people behave for the positive experiences associated with extending ones capacities.

For managers interested in developing leadership capabilities among employees, Ryan and Deci also discuss another concept. They said that not only does intrinsic motivation for an activity exist within people, but that obviously, some activities will intrinsically motivate one individual but not others. Ryan and Deci chose to focus on this intrinsic motivation as a way for people to meet the common high level innate psychological needs of competence, autonomy, and relatedness while recognizing that basic need satisfaction also comes from intrinsically motivated task engagement.


Ryan and Deci’s Self-Determination Theory says that intrinsic motivation to meet psychological needs is catalyzed, as opposed to caused, when people are in conditions that promote its expression. Going against common beliefs, research has shown that external rewards can actually undermine intrinsic motivation, because it very often means that the individuals are not self-determining. They are being told what to achieve.

All employees have intrinsic motivation. Individuals who have high potential to become future executives, directors, managers and other types of leaders need special attention. Some Millennials are already in management positions, but the younger Millennials (and still younger Gen Z)are the critical source of future leadership. Promoting the expression of intrinsic motivation in high performing employees is a strategy for developing leadership capabilities perfectly suited to the uncertain, disruptive and challenging future.

If work assignments, performance reviews, and rewards are not drivers of the expression of intrinsic motivation, organizational leaders must become coaches – and leaders as coaches use a different set of behaviors. They ask questions instead of delivering answers, listen to what the employee says, encourage authenticity, do not judgeand enable development instead of giving orders, because there is recognition people have different intrinsic motivations.

Each person is unique, so recognizing the specificity of each employee’s psychological needs is a key step in harnessing intrinsic motivation. A leader needs to identify what is important to the employee, in order to create meaningful processes. Processes is not simply assigning projects, but means developing a workplace where high potential people are encouraged to progress and grow their careers, where employees can find engaging tasks that meet their psychological needs. As coach, the manager encourages the employee to take on meaningful work, gives clear feedback and does not look at success or failure but rather what was learned. Employees develop what is called an ‘autotelic personality’, in which work activities are done for their own sake because of the experience they deliver and not to meet a particular leadership mandated goal. These employees are internally driven.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, co-founder of Positive Psychology and author of the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, developed the idea of flow at work. ‘Flow’ is where equilibrium is developed between perceived skills and real-world task difficulty, and is where optimal performance is maintained. A flow state combined with an autotelic personality will lead to one of two things. The employee will either change the constraints to create opportunities for expressing their freedom or creativity, or they will transform the job itself into one that leads to flow at work. There is a close link between intrinsic motivation and the state of flow, or optimal performance. The organization benefits, because high potential employees who are intrinsically motivated are more creative, innovative and engaged.

Some specific ways to stimulate intrinsic motivation include giving employees challenging work opportunities; removing organizational barriers like bureaucracy; redesigning workflows; empowering employees to develop new ways of working based on their unique differences; and recognizing an employee’s desire to excel.Managers must develop a supportive management style and a safe learning environment, and also give employees opportunities to develop flow. They need to make the effort to understand the unique emotional drivers of each employee. It could be a desire to help coworkers, challenge the status quo, or experiment, for example.

A coaching leader helps each individual gain greater self-awareness of their personal strengths and goals. Coaching conversations between the manager and employee are important to setting mutual goals and sharing ideas, issues, and challenges and identifying areas of growth. No carrots are held out,but the manager should regularly acknowledge effort and progress.

The key to empowering intrinsic motivation is communicating with employees in a compelling way when explaining the company vision, mission and goals. Compelling in this context means that the message aligns with the personal values of employees. It takes more effort and focus to enable employees to express their intrinsic motivation. However, success means that both employees and the organization win.